* SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film you may not want to read any further. There are a few spoilers.
Opening night I sat in a packed theater of folks who I’m certain had never heard of Ntozake Shange to see Tyler Perry’s adaptation of the 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Having read the literary masterpiece, I knew it would be hard to translate on screen, but went in with an open mind. I exited the theater pleasantly surprised.
One of the two major differences between the original and the film was: revealing the women, who in the book and later play, were only known by their colors. The other difference was Perry’s creation of an overlapping relationship among all of the women. In Shange’s choreopoem there were seven women identified as “lady in red,” “lady in orange,” “lady in blue,” etcetera. Perry added two additional women played by Whoopi Goldberg, the religious fanatic, and Tessa Thompson the 17-year old who suffered through an illegal abortion. Perry’s storyline is understandable given he wouldn’t have been able to create an entire movie based around women entering and exiting randomly reciting powerful poems while dancing, which is exactly how Shange’s choreopoem is written, hence the reason some believe it is best as a theatrical piece for the stage only.
However, Perry was smart in that he kept a great deal of Shange’s monologues, which at times correlated well with his own writing. But my concern was his target audience, many who during the poems spoke loudly about the monologues “sounding like poetry” and inquired about what was going on, most likely didn’t know the difference between Perry’s writing and hers.
In the opening scene Anika Noni Rose is dancing as Shange’s poetic words are heard over the instrumentation. Set in Harlem, we learn all of the women except Janet Jackson and Anika Noni Rose live in the same building, but they are not friends. (Women of Brewster’s Place anyone?) The plot continues by portraying each of the women’s tragic lives separately, but somehow ends up gradually interconnected by the end of the film.
Loretta Devine nailed her role- a nurse in love with a man not worthy of her love. Phylicia Rashad was phenomenal as the nosy landlord of the building offering her unwarranted wisdom to the younger women. One of the most touching scenes of the film was between Phylicia Rashad and Kimberly Elise after Kimberly Elise suffered a tragedy no one should ever have to endure. Anika Noni Rose gave a strong performance as the free spirited dance teacher whose life was forever changed in a matter of moments. Kerry Washington’s performance didn’t do much for me. She played the social worker dealing with an issue in her marriage to Hill Harper. Tessa Thompson does an amazing job in her break out role as the youngest of the cast. Even Macy Gray was solid in her seven minute appearance as the back alley abortion “doctor.” Lastly, Janet Jackson fell short as she always does. It seems as if Janet plays the same character in each of her movies with a different name. Her stoic, flat, one -dimensional high-powered Editor-in-Chief act was unconvincing. When she learned she contracted HIV from her downlow husband, I was not moved in the least bit. What had the potential to be a powerful scene laced with Shange’s poetry was instead painful to watch because of her non-acting abilities.
The men- Michael Ealy, Hill Harper, Omari Hardwick, Richard Lawson and Khalil Kain- play minor roles with no real character development (not as if the women had any either). But I am happy Perry kept Shange’s work as a story of colored girls without the men’s presence overshadowing the women.
As the film climaxes it is oftentimes predictable, but it flows in leading to the end where all the women are on the rooftop professing:
My love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face
My love is too beautiful to have thrown back on my face
My love is too sanctified to have thrown back on my face
My love is too complicated to have thrown back on my face
My love is too magic to have thrown back on my face
“For Colored Girls” is tied neck and neck with “The Family that Preys” as his best film to date. And he owes the success of this adaptation to the all-star cast. The acting was phenomenal. By far the performances of Kimberly Elise- the mother of two children, girlfriend of a deranged Veteran (Michael Ealy), and Thandie Newton- the sex craved heartless woman who slept with men as a result of the emptiness she felt inside were the best performances I’ve seen in a film in a long time.
Such strong actresses speaking Shange’s monologues were a major part of what made this film beautiful. The language combined with modern scenarios conveying the tragedies colored girls face daily is most likely to touch any woman deep down in her soul.
My critique of Perry is the moments in which his poor screenwriting and directing skills translated into awkward moments on screen and via the audience’s reaction.
Perry’s stereotypical approach to the downlow brother was so predictable. And upsetting. I wasn’t mad that Janet Jackson contracted HIV from her husband, rather that Perry played into the stereotype that HIV is a homosexual disease. As if the millions of black women with HIV all contracted it from a downlow man. He also left his audience to wonder. When he revealed Kerry Washington’s infertility as a result of an untreated STD I sighed another heavy sigh. What was the STD? Again, Perry is pandering to stereotypes and spreading misinformation.
All in all Perry did the best he could as a man directing a story written by and for black women. The acting and use of the original monologue carried the film in its entirety.
After the movie I needed a moment to process my thoughts because I was unsure of how I felt about Perry creating such tragic circumstances (some from the choreopoem, others he scripted), for the all black female characters. I didn’t want non-blacks to walk away thinking we all have such tragic lives. But this film is not about them; it’s about us, for once.
For all my colored girls who have suffered from the pains of rape, molestation, abortion, a broken heart, infidelity, infertility, depression, physical abuse, loss of a child, and have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, this story is for you.